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Women Politicians In Leadership Roles: Still A Long Way To Go

Representative democracies that are inclusive with equitable representation of women in politics and parliament have improved and emphatic political decision-making. This year’s Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) has taken a round up of status of women in parliament since Beijing+5 that introduced to the world groundbreaking action plan for gender equality in 1995. It informs that it has taken more than 25 years to reach 25% of women in parliament globally.

Globally it started with reservation/Quotas for women and over the years it has not only made a difference but is paying dividends as well. The IPU notes that of the 20 countries with the largest share of women in parliament, 16 have quota. The share of women in parliamentary chambers without quotas is considerably lower. It also indicates that in-order to accelerate and sustain progress towards gender equality and parity all stakeholders must put in their share. Political parties must encourage women’s participation in electoral and political processes including party recruitment. Countries should create space for women’s movements that can result in new generations of younger women politicians. Societies need to adopt a new narrative that not only allows positive public discourse for women to be in politics; but also pushes for a holistic, gender- sensitive political culture which is free from sexism, harassment and violence.

The Americas and European regions were pioneers in the introduction of quotas for women. IPU report also notes that ‘these quotas have grown in ambition and efficiency: they are no longer designed as a means to reach a minimum threshold of women candidates or members of parliament, but rather as a strategy to ultimately reach gender parity. This is evidenced with the fact that 25 years ago Nordic Countries held the top slots with European countries among top 10 for women’s representation in Parliament. Whereas in 2019, the top four countries are Rawanda, Cuba, Bolivia & UAE who have almost 50% women in their Parliaments.

Unfortunately post independence role of women in active politics gradually started to fade away both by design and default. The plethora of issues faced by Pakistan in 1947, both as nation and citizens, did not promote mainstream role for women in politics. Pakistan was a passionate struggle of both men and women; however post mission accomplishment political instability set in. The shining names of leading and politically active women gradually started to fade. The electoral reform of 2002 was a bounty from a military government to mainstream substantial number of women in politics. It introduced reservation of women seats from national to local level. The electoral reforms of 2002 introduced education, a Bachelors degree, as an eligibility clause to be a MNA or MPA. This led to exit of many political veterans and young “male big wigs”. Since Pakistani politics is family/ clan driven a seat lost meant weakened political hold. Hence women of the families were introduced into politics as men of their family could not qualify. Since then women have consistently been in mainstream political arena.

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 1973 provides for equality of political rights for men and women in terms of voting and contesting all elective offices especially under Article 25, 27 & 34. The Fundamental Rights in the Constitution of the 1973 guarantees equality of all citizens before the law and forbids discrimination on the basis of sex alone. It encourages affirmative action by the State in the context of women empowerment.

Role of women in politics can not be understood without drawing a reference to our constitutional and electoral developments. Let’s take a tour down the memory lane. The 1935 Government of India Act was the interim constitution of Pakistan which had reserved seats for women on the principle of female suffrage. The first Constituent Assembly had only two women representatives i.e. Shaista Ikramullah and Jahanara Shahnawaz. The Constituent Assembly was dissolved in 1954 and no women were elected in the next assembly. The Constitution of 1956 maintained female suffrage and had 15 women’s reserved seats. The Constitution of 1956 was abolished in 1958. The Constitution of 1962 abolished female suffrage and introduced reservation of seats for women i.e. 8 at national and 5 in each provincial assembly. The Constitution Committee of 1972 had three ladies, Nasim Jahan, Mrs. Jennifer Qazi and Begum Ashraf Abassi, as its members. The Constitution of 1973 maintained reservation to 10 seats for women at national level and 5 in each provincial assembly. This reservation lapsed in 1988.

Between 1988 -2002 women representation in National Assemblies was reduced to 3-4 seat; and that too for those who could manage to contest on general seat with the support of their strong political house hold. 2002’s electoral reforms increased the reserved seats to 60 at National & Provincial level and 17 in Senate. In the General election of 2002, 2008, 2013 and 2018 the number of directly elected women to the National Assembly was 13, 16, 9 and 8 respectively.

The situation in Senate was no different between 1973 to 2018. There was only one woman in Senate during 1973-1975; that increased to two for the duration 1975-77. No woman was elected to the Senate for the term from 1985 to 1988. Dr. Noor Jehan Panezai was only woman member between 1988-1991 who was also elected as first deputy Chair of the Senate in 1991 and continued to be the only member till 1994. There were two female Senators between 1994-1997 that reduced to one for the period 1997-2000. 2002 electoral reform led to reservation of 17 seats for women in Senate. 17 women joined Senate on reserved quota for the term 2003 to 2006. During 2003-2009, 4 women were elected as Senators on general seats beside 17 on reserved seats. Only 2 could get elected on general seats for the term 2015 to 2018. Currently there are 20 women members (2 on general seat & 17 reserved) out of a total of 104 Senators. Of these 11 began their term in 2015 while remaining 9 began their term in 2018.

Ms. Fatima Jinnah’s presidential contest was the epitome of women’s struggle for mainstream politics. Post her Ms. Benazir Bhutto emerged as the political role model for women in politics. Pakistan was the first in Islamic world to have a (i) female deputy speaker to NA- begum Ashraf Khatoon, in 1973; (ii) Deputy Chairperson of Senate in 1991; (iii) Prime Minister; and (iv) Speaker to the National Assembly in 2013- Dr. Fehmida Mirza. Political personification as acclaimed by Benazir Bhutto in contemporary times is comparable to none even internationally. Even now not only majority of women in politics emulate her dress code but is recognized as the gold standard for women in political leadership. Currently, Maryam Nawaz Sharif is re-establishing women’s political leadership which may see Aseefa Bhutto in future as well.

National Assembly and the Senate records indicate a consistent increase and contribution of the women in legislative business of both houses. In 2016–2017, 2/3rd of the business was originated by women individually in the NA; whereas in Senate women sponsored 13% parliamentary business. As per FAFEN data, women parliamentarians contributed 33% of parliamentary business in the year 2018-19. Women Parliamentarians moved 39 out of 74 private members’ bills; 27 out of 100 resolutions; 51 out of 108 Calling Attention Notices; and 561 out of 1772 questions in both Houses of the Parliament in an attempt to improve livelihood of the masses. The current cumulative level of women’s representation in the national and provincial legislatures of Pakistan is amongst the top in the region.

Post 2002, women have been part of the Federal Cabinet and committees. Currently there are 4 female Federal Ministers. There 14 women, out of 36, Parliamentary Secretaries; Out of 34 Committees of the NA 2 are headed by women; out of 50 Committees of Senate 10 are headed by women; and out of 10 Parliamentary Committees, 3 are headed by women. However, their representation among the Central Executive Committees of the political parties remain negligible. As another first and an affirmative action, the Election Commission of Pakistan introduced mandatory requirement for political parties to allocate at least 5% of general seats to women; and re-polling if a constituency had less than 10% casted women votes for the General Election 2018.The walk is remain uphill but at least its consistent and steady.

The question thus arises that if women are actively being represented in politics in Pakistan then why their role is still being questioned; and their contribution relegated by being labeled as “elected on quota/ reservation” and/or being ‘politics of inheritance’. Lets also have a quick look as to what is constitutes as socio-political landscape for women who wish to be in politics.
Peculiar socio-cultural and socio-religious narratives restricts political choices, spaces and options for women. They are expected to perform a balancing act between home and politics. Political parties and Pakistani politics do not provide for an option to a female to pursue politics as independently as compare to male. For women, joining a political party and/or party ranks needs them to have political family back ground. This is due to the fact that our political parties do not encourage democratic representation and organizations within their party structures. Women wings of all political parties are yet to grow beyond a decorative attachment; or demonstrate a career trajectory for a woman to be in politics.

The National Assembly of 2002 made history with 60 women on reserved seats and another 13 that got elected on general seats. All of them belonged to a political house hold; were their as proxy of the political man of the family; and largely their role was seen to be managed by “men in party & family” be at the political campaign. Constituency management, floor of house, and/or party meetings. It had ‘men of the political house’ name and pictures on the campaign posters, who later would attend party meetings and take decisions. Another example of the same is that a directly elected woman seat was sacrificed to bring Mr. Shaukat Aziz to the NA. That seat was of the niece of the then Chairperson of PMLQ which indicated the level of importance attached to women in politics as pursued by the political parties and control.

The story remains the same for women who aspire to be in politics. They face range of impediments that include campaign finances, mobility, security and social support besides acceptance of role of women in in mainstream politics and political leadership. With only 23% of women in labor force, they lack economic independence to take such decisions or fund an election campaign that is has a vast geographic spread. Restricted mobility and safety restrict women from accessing basic services and rights like education and health; and adds to their vulnerabilities to mobilize, manage and lead election campaign at all odd hours. The c ever increasing cases of gender based violence and harassment have the tendency to not only intensify but pose as a substantial threat to a potential women contestant because of which families do not encourage their women to pursue politics. Above all politics in our public discourse is still touted to be a male club which turn misogynist at drop of the hat.

The politics in subcontinent and Asia has a character of personified political leadership that becomes larger than political ideology and party itself. Women in Asian politics has been due to politics of agitation that either led to persecution or murder of the men of the family leading the political party. Women’s political leadership in that context has been as leader of agitative politics. This was labeled as politics of inheritance for women. However, women leaders curated not only name but their own brand of politics through their struggle. Pakistan has similar story be it political role of Begum Nusrat Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Kalsoom Nawaz and/or Mariyam Nawaz Sharif. Their political title and leadership had share of political inheritance but the struggle was of their own. They had charisma and following that their parties needed as vote banks. Their respective political parties have had Prime Ministers and Chief Ministers that did not belong to their family clan. Thus establishing that one can bank on political family to be at a political position but it needs leadership that connects to the masses that make voters stick by the party; which has been amply demonstrated by these women.

The Asian region in last 25 years has facilitated women in politics at the rate of 6.8% points only, as per IPU, which has relegated its position form global number two to four. Interpreting and contextualizing that trend for independent individual women of Pakistan to capture political space indicates that it will take a long time and route for them to rise within a political party’s hierarchy to be a leader as being demonstrated in Europe or Americas. Until the women of Pakistan are able to conquer and/or find a way around above stated barriers, their entry and presence in politics will require reservation and support of political households which should not be taken as a negative. The elected women’s performance in Parliament is an indicator of their progressive contribution which is being recognized by the society. The culture of political misogyny is being called out and that represents the change in societal mindset, which is now accepting women in public space in a leadership role. Lets keep our fingers crossed and keep supporting our women.

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1 Comment

  1. Zaheer Sufi December 4, 2020

    Maryam shouldn’t be compared or her picture shouldn’t be even displayed alongside the other two distinguished ladies. I won’t go any further than that.


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